Te Āwhina marae, Motueka. (Photo. Kono.co.nz)

Safety, sovereignty, regeneration: Kono’s Rachel Taulelei on Māori business, post-Covid

Business after Covid: In the first of a series featuring business leaders assessing the world which will rise after Covid-19, Rachel Taulelei of food and beverage business Kono looks forward to a renewed commitment to kaitiakitanga.

Mate atu he tētēkura,
ka whakaeke mai he tētēkura
As one frond perishes another grows in its place.

Having bonds severed with everything we know isn’t a new phenomenon for indigenous people. Been there, done that, got the beads and blankets to prove it.

As Native American author Edgar Villanueva acknowledges, separation from what we know correlates with fear, scarcity, and blame; and history dictates that separation-based economies exploit natural resources and most of the planet’s inhabitants for the profit of the few.

Separation-based political systems create arbitrary nation-states with imaginary boundaries. Their laws and institutions oppress some groups and privilege others.

So hey, here’s a crazy idea – let’s just not go there. If we know what’s around that corner, let’s not turn it. Let’s instead pick a path that leads us away from the seemingly flat out race back to the status quo. Because for a lot of the country the status quo wasn’t that flash.

Despite the extreme pressure we find ourselves under, we are in a golden moment where, fully informed, we get to decide our response to Covid-19.

Arundhati Roy so eloquently wrote this past week that “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

While there are as many differences as there are as commonalities between Māori, some things are constant – we think intergenerationally, we are hardwired for collective responsibility for our people, and we are survivors. We are inextricably linked to our whakapapa, to Ranginui and Papatūānuku, to our very being.

Philosophically, we’re ready for whatever ravages Covid-19 might unleash. Realistically however Māori will most acutely feel the effects of the aftermath.

As Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, and as the most vulnerable sector of society, the impending economic uppercut runs the very real risk of knocking Māori out.

After some lockdown contemplation, my playbook reads like this: safety, sovereignty, regeneration.

We need to make sure our people are safe – from ill-health, unemployment, under-education, and incarceration.

We need to allow the government the opportunity to fulfil their constitutional commitment to partnership. To create a system that pushes back on universality. And with an appetite for relentless execution, a system that encourages the creation of bespoke solutions to wholly unique and urgent challenges.

We need to focus our collective national efforts on motivating and rewarding those businesses who opt into being better corporate citizens as we all battle our way out of the funk.

The government is, rightly, helicoptering money into our economy. It’s first-rate triage.

When we get to buffering broad industry and sector demise, my hope is that the government takes a conditional approach to funding. That the prop-up follows a commitment to be better – to eliminate waste, to take a positive position on water, to reduce emissions, to pay the living wage – pick one, any one.

Perhaps we need a uniquely New Zealand pledge that speaks to people and place. That forces those who can move the dial in our economy to take a demonstrable position on experiential, cultural, spiritual, material, social, financial, intellectual, and living capital.

The expectations we have of ourselves as citizens must be infinitely greater post-Covid than they were before it landed.

Lifting our sights to the balance of the globe, in addition to managing domestic economic impacts, New Zealand will need to be both nimble and creative when it comes to world markets. We will need to continue to press for concerted action at the regional and global level, not only to weather the current storm but also to lay the groundwork for dynamic global economic recovery when the time is right. Yes, we are the metaphorical David, but working together with like-minded trading partners in the region, in APEC and in the WTO will be crucial – and New Zealand has an important leadership role to play here as chair of the WTO General Council and incoming chair for both APEC and ABAC in 2021.

The IMF forecasts that New Zealand’s GDP will contract by 7.2% this year, and that the global economy will contract by 3%, as a result of the “great lockdown”. This is much worse than during the GFC, and worryingly includes virtually zero growth in Asia, which has long been a major driver of the global economy. While economies may bounce back next year, how quick and durable the recovery will be is likely to depend on how well the world gets the pandemic under control, as well as the economic and policy choices we make to prepare.

Last year New Zealand exported around $86 billion worth of goods and services, and about the same in imports, with trade largely concentrated in key markets China, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan. While agriculture and food trade seems to be holding up for now – and in fact, exports are up 13% relative to the same period in 2019, including good growth in dairy, meat and seafood – there is a potential risk in relation to logistics, with Covid-generated disruption to global supply chains and trade patterns meaning that it may become increasingly difficult to access containers and markets even where demand may be strong. Add to this the fact that some countries are also looking to introduce new subsidies or trade restrictions in agriculture, and we are facing wildly distorted export markets.

It is understandable that countries are looking to take extraordinary measures in the face of the health crisis – but unfortunately the response of many has been in a protectionist direction. To date, some 75 countries have imposed export bans on pandemic-fighting tools such as personal protective equipment (like masks or medical equipment), and many more impose tariffs on basics such as soap and disinfectant, and on the inputs needed to make medical equipment such as ventilators. Lunacy.

So where does that leave Māori business? Kono, our whānau-owned Māori food and beverage business based in Te Tauihu (top of the South), will emerge from this experience the same company we came in – only now we are even more committed to our convictions as kaitiaki. We have seen more kindness, courage, grace, trust and consideration amongst our team than ever before – and we will be stronger for it.

Yes, we will need to be wily in the extreme to keep our footing in the world market and to support our offshore partners. We’ll have to work double time with our peers to hold the line as premium producers of the world’s best food and beverages and to maintain the strength and value that is NZ Inc.

But as a Māori organisation, we know our purpose – to preserve and enhance our taonga for the benefit of present and future generations.

How we do that changes, why we do that will never change.

He toka tū moana
As durable as a rock pounded by the surf.


Read more from the series by business leaders here.




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.